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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Saturday, September 2, 2006 10:47 EDT



Mandelfarne Island on Dunbar's World

    Daniel settled into the Sissie's command console with a sigh of relief. It was like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers after a day of marching in heavy boots. Blantyre had shifted to the navigation console and–

    "Good anticipation, Blantyre," Daniel said as he went over a status diagram of the corvette's systems. It was such a reflexive action that he'd have probably run the checklist even if the ship were under immediate attack. "Lighting the thrusters when Woetjans closed the entry hatch."

    The praise was reflexive with Daniel also. Both were a part of being an RCN officer and of training midshipmen like Blantyre to be officers also. She'd reasoned on hearing the corvette was being closed up that the whole assault force was aboard. Lighting the thrusters before Daniel reached the bridge might only save thirty seconds, but that could be time the Sissie and her crew needed.

    Sun threw himself onto the gunnery console. "Ship, I've got the guns, out!" he said, breathless from excitement and from having run up the companionway to the bridge. Midshipman Cory  in the Battle Direction Center had been manning the guns, but this was the sort of opportunity a gunner dreamed of. Sun had no intention of passing it up.

    He'd simply dropped his sub-machine gun onto the deck beside him. I hope it's on safe, Daniel thought, but he had more pressing problems.

    "Ship, prepare to lift," he said. He'd already balanced the corvette's eight thrusters; even before he spoke, he began easing them forward. The Princess Cecile hesitated, wobbled as she broke gravity, then rose slowly. For several seconds she danced like a ball on a water fountain, but when Daniel'd gotten ten feet of height between the thruster nozzles and the ground, the reflected thrust smoothed into a pillow rather than a series of sharp pulses.

    Daniel was aware of the dorsal turret rotating–it changed the corvette's weight distribution slightly–but he was so absorbed in the delicacy of his liftoff that the implication didn't get below the mere sensory level. When Sun fired both 4-inch guns, the paired shocks twisted the ship into the start of a roll. Reflex made Daniel's fingers twitch toward a correction; intellect snatched them back in time.

    "Bloody hell, Sun!" he shouted, but the fireball in the eastern sky was the remains of an APC. The forward half of the vehicle'd vanished, but the stern spun end over end into the ground.

    Daniel was running a real-time panorama using enhanced visuals across the top of his display. He relegated the Sissie's thruster performance to a narrow bar across the bottom–Pasternak'd warn him if there were a problem–and just above it two square terrain maps: to the left, Mandelfarne Island itself, and beside it a larger-scale one including Port Dunbar as well.

    Red blinking lights marched down the right margin of the display, urgent communications demanding his response. Adele's hooked up to the Medicomp, getting microsurgery while blood and antibiotics drip into her. For the first time Daniel thought of that as a professional loss rather than a personal one.

    "Blantyre, take over commo!" he said, gaining altitude as he slanted the corvette over the missile battery. The midshipman probably wasn't the right person for the job, but she'd have to do. The person who was right lay on her back in the Medicomp. "Handle it! Don't send anything to me unless I have to see it, over."

    They were still low enough when they thundered over the battery that Daniel had an instant's fear that the Sissie's exhaust would cook off the missiles' solid fuel. He'd picked the direction so as not to endanger the Volunteers; Corius'd been warned not to advance east of where the Greybudd landed until Daniel gave the word. It hadn't struck Daniel as he did the planning that the missiles, even if their guidance was disabled, contained enough explosive to make one hell of a bang.

    Sun fired again, this time at a gun pit on the east shore of the island. It erupted, leaving a smoking crater and a slowly fading mushroom of plasma trembling upward. Stored ammunition had added to the blast.

    "Sir, where's Officer Mundy?" Blantyre bleated. "Over?"

    "Six, this is Five," announced Vesey from the BDC. The red lights vanished. "I've got the commo, out."

    Daniel felt the ventral turret, retracted for landing, begin to rumble into firing position. A little more vibration while the thrusters were at high output would've meant nothing to a stranger, but Daniel was part of the Princess Cecile.

    Sun fired, still using the dorsal turret; another gun pit blew up. At maximum depression the dorsal cannon barely bore on the shoreline positions as the Sissie climbed and headed eastward toward the sea.

    The gunner'd switched to single shots, quite as effective on these targets as the usual paired rounds. Daniel'd apologize for shouting at him, but that could wait till they were out of this. Sun knew perfectly well that plasma bolts were directed thermonuclear explosions, and he shouldn't've have had to be told that they bloody well affected the handling of a ship skittering in ground effect.

    The Princess Cecile crossed the coastline at three hundred feet, still accelerating. Daniel expected half a dozen bolts from the Pellegrinian plasma cannon, but only one pit fired. The charge hit aft, making the hull ring and probably ruining a furled sail. Sun replied with both guns in the corvette's belly turret, scooping the enemy weapon out in a gush of steam and quivering ions.

    "Blantyre, take the helm," Daniel ordered as he swung the Sissie to port, proceeding east to west a half mile out to sea from Mandelfarne Island. "Keep us parallel to the shore, thirty knots and a hundred feet up, got it? Over?"

    "Aye aye, sir," Blantyre squeaked. "I have the conn! Out!"

    She immediately bobbled the attitude control yoke, sending the corvette into a sideways shimmy. Daniel remained poised, his hands spread above his controls. If Blantyre didn't–

    But she did let the Sissie stabilize instead of compounding her mistake by overcorrecting. The surest way to learn is by falling on your face; so long as that's survivable, of course, and this time it had been.

    Both turrets were firing, back to single shots now that Sun'd made sure of the gun which'd hit them. Sun and Rosinant–now in command of the ventral guns–raked the shore defenses. The Pellegrinian crews had almost certainly abandoned their positions in the face of the inevitable. So long as the corvette held this height and course, both turrets bore on the enemy positions–but they needed the proper targets.

    Daniel expanded the map of the island to half his screen. Before she disembarked on Pellegrino, Adele had marked the base installations, using the signals she gathered the night the aircar probed Mandelfarne Island.

    Working from her data, Daniel prodded the display with his index finger to caret targets: Arruns' headquarters, four trailers backed into the shape of a cross and surrounded with a berm like that of the missile battery; the communications center with its array of antennas for both surface and satellite signals; and the tents (with a few semi-permanent shelters) housing base staff and transients. The accommodations were probably empty, but they were the closest thing to home that the garrison had. Blasting them into fiery ruin was bound to hurt the defenders' morale.

    "Guns, I'm transmitting a target list," Daniel ordered. He sent the data as he spoke, but he changed it from a terrain map into an overlay on the turrets' targeting displays. "Execute it, then cease fire unless somebody shoots at us. Six out."



    The Pellegrinians mostly weren't shooting. They couldn't effectively engage the corvette this far out. The 50-mm plasma cannon–if any survived–didn't have the range.

    Half a mile through an atmosphere considerably diffused the Sissie's bolts, but that only increased their psychological effect. They hit as broad showers of ions, igniting square yards of their present unprotected targets. Tents became infernos, and the light-metal antennas of the communications center melted or burned.

    At every ringing shot, the off-duty Sissies–most of the crew–cheered enthusiastically. Vesey was echoing the targeting displays on every screen in the ship. She'd learned the trick from Adele. The memory of your friends is a kind of immortality….

    The sandbagged trailers of the HQ got multiple bolts. The Princess Cecile was high enough that the berm was no protection. Woven plastic sandbags vanished in smoky flames; their contents either burned or fused, depending on the ratio of loam to sand in each one. After the third or fourth round, one of the trailers collapsed; after half a dozen more the installation had fallen into mounds of earth with flames licking from within.

    A red light flashed on the right of Daniel's display. "Sir, I think you'd better listen to this," Vesey said on the intercom. "Five out!"

    Daniel, his face suddenly still, opened the transmission by touching the light with his index finger. "–ender at once!" snarled a man. His anger and Pellegrinian accent made the words almost unintelligible, but Vesey remembered–finally! She's doing a great job, but God I miss Adele!–to run a text crawl across the bottom of Daniel's display: Caio Duilio.

    Sun and Cory had run out of targets, but Daniel didn't have any more to offer them. By this point the Volunteers might be anywhere in the base. Without proper fire direction from the troops engaged, Daniel couldn't risk shooting at further targets that weren't shooting at the Princess Cecile.

    "Blantyre," Daniel said, verbally keying the direct intercom link. "I'm taking the helm. Break. Duilio, this is Commander Daniel Leary, RCN. To whom do I have the honor of speaking, over?"

    As he spoke, he flared the thruster nozzles and boosted flow. He carried out the two operations so smoothly that only the Power Room crew would've known what'd happened. Because of inertia, it took longer to increase the flow of reaction mass than it did to iris down the Stellite laminae of the jets. It seemed very likely that the Princess Cecile would have to accelerate shortly.

    "Listen you bloody pirate!" the cruiser transmitted. "This is Captain Owen ap Glynn! You'll surrender to me now, I mean now, or I'll blow you to Hell! Do you surrender, over?"

    "Ship, prepare for maneuvering," Daniel said. "Break. Captain ap Glynn, I'm an officer of the RCN and carrying out the orders of the Cinnabar Senate. I appreciate you–"

    "Six, he's launching!" Blantyre said. Vesey had blocked the intercom link, but the midshipman's shout was audible over the thrusters.

    Daniel didn't need the warning, but this was definitely a case where Blantyre was right not to take a chance. He slammed the jets tight as he swung the attitude yoke to starboard. Starships really didn't accelerate very quickly, even a warship without her usual load of missiles. Nonetheless the Sissie accelerated as quickly as she could.

    The Duilio 'd been holding in a powered orbit above Dunbar's World while waiting for the Rainha to unload–as ap Glynn had thought. Now, just as the cruiser moved into the planet's shadow, she'd launched two missiles toward the ground. That was a waste of expensive hardware, Daniel thought, but he wasn't going to chance ap Glynn getting lucky. He was taking the Princess Cecile as far out of the possible impact zone as the thrusters could move her.

    "Ship, action stations," he ordered, suddenly cheerful and a little surprised to realize it. This wasn't a good situation, but nothing–not even sex–made Daniel feel more alive than needing to function at ten tenths capacity. "Woetjans, get your people ready to set sail ASAP when I give the order. You may have to work under full acceleration, out."

    The riggers'd started pulling themselves into their hard suits as soon as Daniel'd warned that he was about to maneuver. The Princess Cecile's crew was not only veteran, they were razor sharp.

    The corvette was low enough that at maximum output and minimum aperture her thruster exhaust dimpled the sea. Columns of steam drifted north on the sea breeze as the Sissie roared east at nearly three gravities' acceleration. Distance is our friend….

    "Listen, you Cinnabar dog-turds!" ap Glynn continued. So far as Daniel was concerned there was no longer any point in talking, but the Pellegrinian captain obviously had a different opinion. "If you think you can come here and make a fool out of me, think again! I'm not going back home and have the Chancellor hang me, no bloody way!"

    Daniel didn't know for sure what the Duilio's missiles were aimed at, but it didn't really matter: a ship launching into an atmosphere had only a random statistical chance of hitting any particular target. Not even the planetary surface was a complete certainty.

    The missiles screamed out of the eastern sky, tracing dazzling streaks on the optical display. The first of the pair suddenly began to corkscrew in increasing circles.

    Missiles were powered by High Drive motors like those which starships used when they were above the atmosphere. They ejected a certain amount of antimatter into the exhaust–and if it was in an atmosphere, the atom-by-atom explosions ate away at first the motor, then the vessel itself.

    That was happening to both Pellegrinian missiles. The first was obviously destroying itself but the other's motor was certainly degrading itself also. Despite that it drove into the sea almost precisely between where the corvette had been and the shore of Mandelfarne.

    The first spun in an expanding helix until, three miles above the surface, it broke apart and sprayed down like the heart of a comet. Perhaps half the fragments hit the island. Smoke and a single orange fireball shot skyward. Daniel had no better idea of who or what they'd hit than Captain ap Glynn could.

    Ap Glynn didn't care. Ap Glynn was so angry and frightened–Daniel was sure he'd been right to fear hanging if he returned to Pellegrino–that he'd committed an act of war against direct orders. Chancellor Arruns might be very angry that his invasion of Dunbar's World had failed, very possibly with the death of his son, but he certainly knew that declaring war on Cinnabar meant his reign on Pellegrino was finished also.

    "Land your bloody ship, Leary!" ap Glynn said. "You surrender and you tell the other dog-turds from Bennaria to surrender, and then the bloody dog-turd farmers on Dunbar's World can surrender also! All of you give up, or I won't leave one stone on another in Port Dunbar. And I'll land on Mandelfarne and blast it till it bloody glows, I will!"

    There was movement in the compartment. Daniel's whole attention was focused on the Plot Position Indicator with which he'd replaced the terrain maps, but from the corner of his eye he saw Sun's head jerk to the right. Somebody'd sat down at the Signals console; at Adele's console.

    "Cinnabar Six, this is Rainbow One," said a voice. Daniel knew it was Adele's only because it had to be Adele's; she quavered like an octogenarian speaking around an oxygen tube. "We have the captured battery operational again. Do not, I repeat do not, attempt to approach within thirty kilometers of Mandelfarne Island. The targeting and launch are automatic. Acknowledge, please. Rainbow One over."

    "Rainbow One, this is Cinnabar Six," Daniel said. He set the astrogational computer to plotting a course to orbit, taking into account the position of the Duilio. This is going to be very tricky…. "Acknowledged. Be very careful, because the wogs had Alliance advisors. They dispersed two missiles to the west end of the island to avoid commando strikes. Six out."

    So much for the risk of ap Glynn bringing the cruiser down on Mandelfarne and blasting the Volunteers out with 15-cm guns. Adele had thought fast and then done the impossible.



    The computer assembled five alternative courses in red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. The Pellegrinian cruiser was a bead on a white oval; a predicted course only, and one that would probably change when the Princess Cecile began to climb out of the gravity well.

    Daniel chose Option Red and pressed Execute. "Ship, this is Six," he said. "We're rising to orbit but the maneuvers are likely to be severe. Don't leave your stations, out. Break, Signals, how the hell did you do that, over?"

    He'd chosen Red because it involved full thrust. He wouldn't normally have lifted at such high acceleration, but the Sissie couldn't afford not to react instantly if the Duilio launched more missiles.

    A starship isn't streamlined. The Sissie's increasing speed through the atmosphere made her shudder fiercely. A bang! and fluttering followed by a series of crackles from the hull meant a furled sail had carried away and been shredded in the airstream. They'd be lucky if they didn't lose at least one antenna before they got out of the thicker layers of air.

    The riggers waiting to go onto the hull gripped the railing around the foyer; they didn't have seats and restraint webs to keep them from flying around. The rigging suits, heavy at the best of times, must be crushing now. For Daniel, simply moving his fingers on the virtual keyboard was a strain.

    "Six," said Adele and paused. Daniel inset a tiny image of her face at the top of the PPI display which now filled his display. She looked as worn as the blade of an old kitchen knife; her eyes closed briefly. "I sent the message to the Rainha on tight beam microwave; it doesn't have laser. And retransmitted on short wave as though it were originating there. I don't think the Duilio's direction finding apparatus is good enough to be sure it isn't coming from the missile control trailer. Over."

    "Out," Daniel said. There was a great deal more he'd have liked to say, but this wasn't the time for it… and anyway, there was no need. The way she'd come out of the Medicomp when violent acceleration warned her that something was going on showed she understood how much he and the Princess Cecile depended on her.

    "Cruiser launching," Blantyre announced. Her voice came over the intercom; Adele was handling commo again, taking a less Draconian approach than Vesey had done. "Two missi–no, four missiles, over."

    Again Daniel didn't need the warning, but he was pleased to see that Blantyre was keeping an eye out. He adjusted his yoke a point to port but didn't change the rate of climb. The corvette was rising through ten thousand feet, still low enough that missiles from the Duilio would pass through too much atmosphere to hit a moving target.

    He'd plotted the Sissie's course at 90-degrees to the cruiser's. They'd still intersect in plane, though at considerable differences in altitude. The high deflection made the job of the Duilio's missileer more difficult and gave Daniel more options to evade.

    In the event, this salvo too plunged down at Mandelfarne Island. By accident or design one hit the Greybudd. There was a bright red flash, then an iridescent flare of the fusion bottle ruptured.

    The other missiles cratered the island, though Daniel couldn't tell the extent of the damage without going to more effort than he had time or reason to expend. Ap Glynn must be in an insane rage to ignore the thousand or so Pellegrinian troops in the impact zone, either as prisoners or still resisting.

    "Captain, Councilor Corius is contacting the Duilio through a satellite link," Adele said. "I'm cutting you into the conversation." Noticeably later, "Out!"

    "–isten you Bennarian dog-turd!" ap Glynn said. His vocabulary seemed limited, though his stress was some excuse. "There's a state of war, all right, between you and me, screw Bennaria! You're not on Bennaria, you're here, and you're going to surrender or starve, do you get me? No ship lands on Dunbar's World, anywhere on Dunbar's World, until you surrender and Port Dunbar surrenders. Screw the rest of this bloody planet, but you and the port turn yourself over to Field Marshal Arruns. Over."

    "Power Room, prepare to switch to High Drive in one minute, out," Daniel warned. That'd be cutting it close; he'd probably wait eighty seconds so that erosion of the motors wouldn't require their replacement before a voyage of any length.

    He was wearing the thrusters badly as it was, and the Sissie's reaction mass tanks were edging toward fifty percent capacity. There hadn't been time to refill them after the corvette's hop from Ollarville, and the plasma drive was inefficient compared to antimatter conversion.

    "Captain ap Glynn," said Corius' voice. It was definitely the Councilor speaking, not Colonel Quinn. "You have no authority to blockade a free and independent world. This is piracy, and you'll be hanged by your own government if you attempt it."

    "Ship, lighting the High Drive," Daniel said, executing with the words. For a moment the sharper, smoother note of the antimatter annihilation increased the acceleration, but Daniel shut down his thrusters as soon as he was sure the High Drive was running properly. He'd have liked to hold the higher rate, but he simply didn't have the reaction mass to dare.

    "Cruiser launching," Blantyre announced. "One missile only. Out."

    Though the Princess Cecile had reached the troposphere by now, occasional pings indicated damage from air molecules. They weren't frequent enough to make Daniel regret his judgment.

    He echoed the gunnery screen. Sun had resumed control of both turrets, slewing them to follow the Pellegrinian cruiser. Missiles followed a ballistic course after they'd burned their reaction mass in achieving the fraction of light speed that made them so devastating on impact. Their tracks were as predictable as those of their targets.

    A ship which found itself on an intersecting course with a missile could fight its own inertia by trying to accelerate or decelerate out of the target zone, and it could attempt to deflect the missile. Plasma bolts blasted away the missile's own structure as reaction mass and skewed its direction. At the present short range, Sun's little 4-inch weapons weren't going to do much good, but he intended to die trying.

    Daniel grinned. That was a spacer's joke

    The missile streaked downward rather than toward the Princess Cecile. Ap Glynn hadn't replied verbally, but he'd sent a missile into the center of Port Dunbar to show what he thought of Councilor Corius' statement.

    The Princess Cecile was out of the gravity well and heading away. At no point would their course be precisely in line with that of the orbiting cruiser–there was no reason to tempt fate–but apart from that consideration, Daniel only wanted to put distance between them and Dunbar's World as quickly as he could.

    "Captain," said Adele, "Field Marshal Arruns has ordered the Duilio to remain above Dunbar's World and carry out a complete blockade, as Captain ap Glynn proposed. They do not intend to pursue us." A pause. "Over."

    "Adele, they'd left their antennas up and sails spread while they were in orbit," Daniel said, a friend speaking to a friend instead of captain to signals officer. "They can't match our acceleration–they'd tear their rigging off if they did. Once we got out of the atmosphere with the planet between us and them for the next ten minutes, we were free."

    He stretched his arms, first overhead and then out to his sides. He chuckled.

    "Ship, this is Six," he said, his voice echoing itself from the public address speakers in each compartment. "We can't fight a cruiser, even a sorry-ass Pellegrinian cruiser, without missiles, so we're returning to Bennaria to get some. And then, my fellow Sissies, we're coming back. Six out!"

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